History waiting in the wings

Political parties always like to think they are on the right side of history, that they are the future. Many don’t succeed.

Some do find a market for the wrong side of history. The Alliance nudged 30 per cent in polls at times after 1993 by giving voice to widespread voter anger at the 1980s economic reforms.

But in 2002, with the reforms embedded and the economy doing nicely, the Alliance disappeared, save for a two-MP remnant called “Progressive”, now itself biodegrading.

How come, then, that New Zealand First, which also opposed the reforms, is thriving? It has cornered not only the declining niche market of older opponents of the reforms (wrong side of history) but also the growing niche market of those who fear Asian immigration, a market which will grow as we are drawn into the Chinese strategic and economic spheres.

In that second sense it is on the right side of history as a niche player — but in a negative, losing, sense, as a blocker likely to fail.

ACT, by contrast, welcomes that future in the sense that as this country is drawn into the Chinese sphere it will have to measure its regulatory settings against those of east Asia instead of Australia, the United States and Europe. That implies ACT’s lighter regulation and tax and smaller government.

But ACT’s prescriptions are on the wrong side of the current debate. Neither main party buys them, even though Don Brash’s personal positioning is ACT’s. The ideology has had its day — for now — and ACT may not survive this election, in which more moderate prescriptions are in play.

Some would say United Future is on the wrong side of history, trying to revive a morally stricter age — and a likely smaller vote in this election may be seen as proof. But actually, after decades of moral liberalisation, there is a growing niche market, if the Destiny and similar churches are a guide. Whether that niche widens over time and puts United Future on the right side of history we cannot know yet.

The Maori party is also in growing niche market: Maori demanding a larger place in society and the power structure. Moreover, demographics will widen its potential voting pool — a quarter of under-15s have Maori ethnicity.

The Maori party is likely to do well in this election. But is it actually on the right side of Maori history?

The Treaty debate has for 25 years been about rights. The policy response by Labour-led and National-led governments has also been in those terms. But now, both within Maoridom, as a young middle class emerges, and in the policy response, the accent is turning to educational and economic development.

Rights will continue to loom large in politics, especially if a National-led government rolls them back after this election. But over time rights will likely diminish as a driver of votes, even among Maori. If the Maori party wants to stay on the right side of history, it will need to adapt.

So will the Greens. They see themselves as the voice of the future, with a 200-year agenda to save the planet and its human dependants — surely on the right side of history.

But their methods are not. They rely heavily on regulation, which goes against the grain of the age. Incentives, markets and appeals to self-motivation are more welcome to most younger people than moralising prohibitions and strictures.

That puts Labour on the wrong side of history, too. Younger people expect goods and services to be customised and Labour’s state-centralised services, a hangover from 1970s thinking, will not do as the young evolve into the voting majority.

National’s younger forty-something frontbenchers are more attuned to that younger mood.

National may also do well in this election out of a “one law for all”, anti-rights stance on Treaty issues. But longer term this Eurocentric ideology will be challenged in an increasingly Polynesian country. On this, Labour is nearer to being on the right side of history, though that won’t do it any immediate good this election.

For big parties niche markets won’t do. For a big party which wants to emulate National’s 38-12 win over Labour in 1949-99 the trick is to be in tune with the present but on the right side of history for the future.

Neither has got there yet. So this election will essentially be fought on excitements of the moment. History will wait in the wings.